STEM push experiencing success, growing pains

None of the more than 500 people attending last week’s statewide STEM meeting in Columbus needed to be convinced of the importance of science-and-math education, although many might wonder exactly what it really means for their schools. 

Many questioned how STEM knowledge and techniques will be transferred from high-flying STEM academies to the state’s vin ordinaire classrooms, where far better science and math education is needed.

Kim Horvath, from Akron, the mother of a fourth grader, spoke for many attending the conference at the Center for Science and Industry when she asked a panel of state education and business leaders, including State Superintendent Deborah Delisle, how STEM was going to actually make it into classrooms.

Members from the day’s first panel, which included officials from the National Governors Association and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, highlighted the need for “public-private partnerships” and ways to “scale current strategy” to improve teaching.

“The MC-squared (MC2 STEM High School) in Cleveland needs to be a pipeline,” to share knowledge with Cleveland-area schools, said David J. Ferrero, of the Gates Foundation, citing an example.

But that wasn’t enough for Horvath, who believes No Child Left Behind, as it is carried out in Ohio at least, is forcing curriculum into a straitjacket and that schools are eliminating worthwhile extracurricular activities to meet its mandates.

“I can teach more in my backyard to my son than STEM can,” said Horvath, who is studying geology at the University of Akron.

Relevant to Horvath’s question – but much later in the day -- Ohio Governor Ted Strickland announced that the University of Akron, the University of Cincinnati, John Carroll University, and Ohio State University will partner with the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation to each educate 20 STEM fellows enrolled in master’s degree programs. Each fellow will receive a $30,000-a-year stipend in exchange for a commitment to work for three years in a struggling school.

Other programs are attempting to spread the STEM gospel, particularly the Ohio STEM Learning Network, which represents 10 STEM schools and 26 individual programs. In the Dayton area, a regional STEM initiative is promoting STEM learning ideas to teachers and enlisting local businesses to open labs to STEM students. In Columbus, teachers can learn the basics of STEM in the Columbus Metro School before returning to their home schools.

But the job is huge – there are more than 4,200 public schools in the state -- and such programs seem to amount to a trickle. They take time to pay dividends for the tens of thousands of teachers and 1.8 million students in the state.

“I don’t hear a lot about how we’re going to take these great ideas and integrate them under No Child Left Behind,” Horvath said. “They haven’t answered the question. My son doesn’t have access to a STEM school.”

In fact, Horvath removed her son from his public school, despite assurances from teachers he was doing well. She was concerned that teachers were teaching to the state test and her son was being short-changed.

“It was worksheet after worksheet after worksheet coming home,” she said.

Teachers certainly don’t have to teach to the state exams to have their students score well, said Michael Miller, during a break in the meeting. But Miller, a technology teacher at Kilbourne Middle School in Worthington, said educators have to be smart about it. To illustrate, he said, an intensive, hands on science-math curriculum flopped when it was first introduced at Kilbourne.

When new teaching ideas were introduced in lower grades, however, students began to show improvement. Kindergarteners were exposed to basic ideas in engineering and other technology subjects. When they entered Kilbourne the STEM-oriented program began to produce results.

“Not only do our kids answer the questions correctly, they can say why,” Miller said.

Kilbourne students, for example, might design a survival shelter for a particular environment – a desert or snowy mountains – from material in the environment.

“It’s difficult to write this kind of curriculum but it’s more rewarding for them and a blast for us,” Miller said.

Such change can’t come too fast for Gordon Aubrecht, a physics teacher at Ohio State University’s Marion campus. Too many Ohio schools are stuck in what he called an educational system designed to train docile workers. “It’s well over a century out of date and we’re still doing it,” he said. “I have students who say, ‘Just tell me what to memorize.’ But it doesn’t work that way in my class.”

STEM philosophy, however, is not new. Teresa Harris, a science teacher at Upper Sandusky High School in Wyandot County, said basic STEM teaching ideas go back at least to the 1970s but teachers and teacher-training schools have fallen flat in adopting them.

“After 40 years we’re still not doing it,” she said.

This institutional attitude may hamper STEM. In fact¸ she said, administrators, at least in some schools, don’t understand what STEM is all about. “Administrators still like to look into classrooms and see kids sitting in rows....Administrators still like to see order,” she said.

It’s ironic, then, that Ohio is considered a leader in STEM education.

“Ohio doesn’t lead in a lot of things but we do in technology-based economic development and clearly in STEM,” Richard Stoff, president of the Ohio Business Roundtable, told the conference.

Industry has signed on. General Electric, for example, is so concerned about having a trained workforce in the future the company established a STEM school at its lighting division in Nela Park on the east side of Cleveland.

“We’re looking for some of these kids to come back and work at GE,” said Michael Petras, president of GE Lighting.

Ohio Development Director Lisa Patt-McDaniel echoed GE’s concerns. “We hear from companies in Ohio that they’re pleased with the workforce but they are looking toward the future,” she said. Demand is high for workers with math and communication skills who can work in teams, analyze a problem and create a solution.

In fact, Akron saved its tire business when rubber companies threatened to pull out, in part, because the community guaranteed that the area would supply enough trained workers, said Rep. Brian Williams, chairman of the Ohio House education committee and former superintendent of Akron Public Schools. STEM figures in this kind of effort. Other fading industrial communities, like Dayton and Toledo, also face the issue of providing a trained workforce to retain and attract business.

Despite this importance, STEM programs will be scrutinized as never before in the next state budget as Ohio lawmakers will need to trim at least $4 billion in spending. “Next year, I don’t know how we’re going to get through the budget cycle,” said Sen. Gary Cates, chairman of the Ohio Senate education committee. Legislative scrutiny will pit education against other government spending. STEM programs will have to butt heads with other education programs, like providing money to increase high-school graduation rates.

Cates looks at STEM as a job creation program crucial to Ohio’s future, especially given an analysis last week listing Ohio second to last of all states and the District of Columbia in prospects for post-recession job creation. “This is a program that works. It’s got to work,” he said.

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